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An Australia Day reflection

By Sarah Russell - posted Monday, 30 January 2017


Another Australia Day has been and gone demonstrating that our history provokes a range of emotional responses - pride, sorrow, happiness, anger and guilt. The large number of non-Indigenous Australians who attended Invasion/Survival Day rallies around Australia suggests guilt is a common emotional response of non-Indigenous Australians when recalling Australia's colonial treatment of Aboriginal people.

If you accept – as I do - that the Australian frontier was a violent place and many Aboriginal lives were lost in this violence. Also that Aboriginal Australian suffered because of the loss of livelihood, disease and poverty. Then there is much to provoke a sense of guilt. However, guilt prevents constructive dialogue.

Instead I want an honest conversation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians about our shared past and its consequences. I want to have this conversation in ways that enable us all to address the legacy of the past and create a shared future.

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Guilt can be a crippling and paralysing emotion. Guilt doesn't create the basis for reframing our relationships or enabling us to see new alterative futures together. For some, the fear of guilt becomes a reason to avoid thinking about these confronting truths about Australia's past.

For those Australians who do not have any historical connection to Australian frontier– such as more recent migrants – guilt seems an even less appropriate response.

Hobart Lord Mayor Sue Hickey brought herself to national attention when she raised concerns about The Museum of Old and New Art's (MONA) proposal for a Truth and Reconciliation Park. MONA has a long-term vision to transform an industrial site into a cultural precinct at Macquarie point. This proposal includes a precinct that acknowledges Tasmania's colonial conflict with Indigenous people as well as a Tasmanian Aboriginal history centre. It has the potential to become a national building project with an innovative cultural space that creates new ways for Australians of all backgrounds to reconcile our colonial past.

Sue Hickey said a Truth and Reconciliation Park would create "a guilt ridden" place adding that she "didn't kill Aborigines". She received public opprobrium for her comments, particularly from Indigenous Australians. Although her initial comments were clumsy and caused offence, subsequent discussions between Sue Hickey and Tasmania's Palawa (Aboriginal) were positive. However, the incident illustrates how the fear of guilt can get in the way of conversations about our colonial past.

I am not promoting a naïve dewy-eyed nationalism that glosses over the confronting aspects of our history. If we are going to have a shared future, we need to collectively remember our colonial history. But there may be more productive ways to set the tone for our engagement with our colonial past.

A dialogue about our colonial history underpinned by generosity, empathy, respect and compassion has greater potential for constructive engagement with our colonial history and its legacy. This approach may allow us to acknowledge past suffering whilst at the same time opening up new ways for us to relate to each other and build a shared future. This is a future in which we all belong but in different ways.

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Every year we have difficult conversations about the problems associated with choice of the 26th of January to celebrate our Australian nationhood. This year was no different. Australia day honours, BBQs, citizenship ceremonies and invasion day/survival day marches were all held concurrently. Once again, Australia Day – a national day that should bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous together – divided our nation.

A poll published in the Guardian found most Indigenous Australians want the date changed. 26th January is the anniversary of the date in which the First Fleet raised the Union Jack in Sydney Cover in 1788. It is a date that by virtue of its historical symbolism causes pain to Indigenous Australians.

26th January became a public holiday uniformly across all Australian states only in 1994. For many Indigenous Australians it is symbolic of the act of dispossession. Yet we seem unable to have a frank and honest conversation about changing the date. Being dismissive and responding that this is a silly conversation – or that it is "political correctness gone mad" – is not a generous way to bring all Australians into a celebration of our shared collective future. A generous approach to dialogue based on empathy, respect and compassion would seek to find a date to celebrate our nationhood that is inclusive of all Australians.

We need a way to talk about our past that is honest that acknowledges harm both intended and not intended to Indigenous Australians. Perhaps this would be more productive if we were able to move from one based on guilt to one based on emotional engagement that is enabling. That might require us all to shift our approach to each other and acknowledge the multiple cultural traditions. Whoever we are – Indigenous, descendants of settler Australians, migrants or refugees - we all have a stake in our nations future.

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About the Author

Dr Sarah Russell is the principal researcher of Research Matters and a former critical care nurse.

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